Rosie Perez is a quintessential New Yorker. After a rocky childhood in Brooklyn, she was discovered dancing in a club, landed a role on Soul Train, then as a choreographer for music videos. Her moves got her discovered in a club again, this time by Spike Lee, who cast her in Do the Right Thing. An Oscar nomination followed in 1994 for her role in Fearless. The 49-year-old actress has seen it all, and recounts in her new memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life. “I had never shared my story in public and realized that I had to be completely honest,” she explains.
Yet her greatest accomplishment isn’t her acting, but her work as co-founder of the Urban Arts Partnership. Perez started the foundation in 1991 to mentor young students in some of the poorest public schools. “I have a desperation to do what I can to help young people who are overlooked, ignored or thought of less than because they are poor,” says Perez. “I want to do all I can to help them flourish.” To that end, Urban Arts Partnership established a number of arts programs (including playwriting, theater, music, dance and photography) to offer a forum for the students to share their stories and gain fluency in English and to inspire them to become leaders and thrive.
For nearly a decade, the group has organized an annual day-long marathon of theater and music. Called the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway, 24 actors, six writers and six directors come together to conceive, write, rehearse, and perform six brand new short plays in just 24 hours. Famous actors (who have included Jennifer Aniston, James McAvoy and Sam Rockwell) and playwrights have participated, and the event has helped Urban Arts Partnership raise millions for their programs.
It’s a dizzying 24 hours, especially for Perez who not only acts in one of the plays but is also den mother to the actors and cheerleader for some of the Urban Arts kids who perform. “The whole day is up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth,” says Perez, who also manages to sneak in Tweeting and watching fights on her iPad. Here Perez shares her wild day.
I was supposed to get up at 6am to be at the theater at 7am, but woke up at 8:30. I was trying to juggle the 24 Hour Plays and meeting with Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez at her Brooklyn office to talk about an arts education task force. But I have to be at the 24 Hour Plays early because most of the actors trickle in late.
I called Anna Strout, our Benefit Director and said, “I’m late.” But she said, “Okay, but you have to get here.” And I said, “But I have to go to Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez’s office.” So the morning started out with an argument. Anna and I argue, but she won, as she always does. Then I called Congresswoman Velázquez’s office and said, “I can’t come, but what I’m doing is for the kids. So I hope that you can reschedule.” I was so tired because the night before I was up with 24 Hour Plays and went to sleep at around 2am. The new actors get so excited, they want to talk, but I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody go, go, go to your hotel. You gotta get rest.” But they never listen.
I was on my second cup of coffee and trying to get ready. Then I sat down for a minute and ended up falling to sleep. My phone rang. Anna knows me so well that she called me. I said, “I’m coming. I’m coming.”
I was debating whether to drive myself in or take a cab. I ended up driving myself. Driving from where I live in Brooklyn to Manhattan is hell and I’m the worst driver ever. I’m terrible on the Long Island Expressway or the FDR because I go so slow. It’s irritating and everyone honks at me. But I don’t care because I am having an anxiety attack. I’ve even gotten pulled over by officers. They say, “It’s against the law to go this slow,” and I say, “Are you kidding me?!” They’ll say, “You’re on the LIE going 40 miles an hour in the fast lane.” And I say, “Really?!” In LA, I told a policeman who stopped me going 30 miles an hour, “Give me a ticket because I’m not going fast on the freeway.”
The cast in our play is Jordin Sparks, Jay Pharoah, Sonja Sohn, Anthony Mackie and Tim Daly. Tim’s sister, Tyne Daly, was on the TV show Cagney and Lacey. I was gushing telling Tim, “I love you, I love your sister.” I could see Jordin was getting frustrated because it was her first 24 Hour Plays and they already had several hours of rehearsal without me. I loved the play. It had its problems, but we worked it out. All I was thinking about was, I stood up Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. I couldn’t get over it. So every time we had a little bit of a break, I called her office, but couldn’t get her directly. I finally got to speak to Congresswoman and she said, “I’m over it! Enjoy the day!” She was wonderful.
We get amazing food sponsors. Our lunch was donated by Gather restaurant. The only frustrating part is that I always have to eat my lunch when Anna’s not looking. I’m allergic to dairy. It attacks my respiratory system. I’m not supposed to have wheat, gluten, blah, blah, blah. But I really don’t care. And Anna knows this. When I reach for something, like a sandwich with brie she says, “No, no, no, I’ve got your lunch. Here, here, here.” I know this is horrible but when I see her distracted, I ran and grabbed two lunches because I’m a pig. I love food!
I took a break by going outside for some fresh air. There were fans by the stage door and I loved them. I know that sounds really corny, but it took me a long time to really appreciate fans because I was afraid of the interaction. TMZ was out there. I don’t know why people recognize me so quickly. If you don’t see my face, I look like a New Yorker most of the time. I avoided TMZ quickly and went back inside.
We rehearsed some more. The cast cracked me up and we had a great time. I kept begging Jordin to sing and she finally did after I sang some Jackson Five songs. Jesse Tyler Ferguson and I told stupid jokes. But Anna pulled me over and said, “you have stop fooling around.” Then I met some people from Montblanc, our presenting sponsor. Because of my personality, I’m always having fun, shaking hands and talking. But then I end up talking too much, and they have to pull me away.
I had to do hair and makeup with the other actors, which was sponsored by Ecru New York Salon and Kevyn Aucoin. I told Carmen Ejogo, who performed this year and is Jeffrey Wright’s wife, how jealous I am that she is so beautiful without makeup. I said if we weren’t friends, I would trip her in the parking lot. We were having more fun, but then Anna pulled me out again to do some interviews.
In between rehearsals, I helped two students, Dasia Carr and Devin Mojica, who were performing their own writing that evening. It’s about trying to build their confidence. I’m not as focused with their delivery. I say, “Words mean nothing unless you have them memorized. You cannot be on stage thinking about the words.” Once they have everything memorized, we drill it, drill it, drill it. So when they go on stage, they can go to a zone where the words just flow. The meaning behind them and the cadence becomes very, very powerful. [Actress] Diane Neal, who is on our board, works closely with the kids. Before I spent too much time with the kids and not enough time with the cast. Diane took that responsibility. Before show time, I usually give the kids a pep talk. This time I left them alone because I knew they were really prepared and I didn’t want to overdo it.
Questlove came to rehearsals. We’ve been begging him for years to either participate in the plays as an actor or be a musical act or DJ at the after party. We finally got him to DJ this time. For me, the whole day is about going back and forth, up and down and back and forth. Also, I’m always trying to get the fights on my iPad. The 24 Hour Plays is on a Monday, but Monday Night Fights is on Fox Sports 1. So I tried to sneak that in.
I went to our cocktail party and again, I had a little bit too much fun. Then I had to be with the cast. I needed to rally the troops because the actors can get nervous and freaked out during the process before show time.
From backstage I watched the different short plays. I cheered all the actors before they went on and applauded them when they came off. Several people from Urban Arts do that so we can be supportive.
While everything was going on, I tried to sneak in watching the fights on my iPad. I love watching fights, like the Main Events on Showtime and HBO. And I love watching up and coming fighters. We do the 24 Hour Plays on a Monday, the same night as Monday Night Fights is on Fox Sports 1. People from Urban Arts will say, “What are you watching?” and I say, “Nothing. I’m reading my script.” I always try to sneak out to the roof of the American Airlines Theater because the reception is better there. I rushed back to my cast. They were fine. Then I rushed backstage and watched the different short plays.
By the time I got to the end of the show, I checked my twitter feed and asked my #BoxingHeads Twitter friends, “Please tell me who won. Please give me an update on the fights.” They are great Twitter friends. They always clue me in. They’re so supportive.
When the show ended, I finally let go. My other job is to corral all the actors to make sure that they get over to the after party at BB King’s next door to the American Airlines Theater. That’s exhausting. I hate doing the press line and getting my picture taken because by that time, after I’ve been rushing around all day and dealing with New York humidity, my hair looks like crap. But I have to do the press line because it’s all about the kids. And it’s very important to thank our sponsors. So I suck it up.
I checked my Twitter feed. Usually at the after party, I find the actors on the dance floor and then I rush back home to watch the fights that my husband has recorded for me. But this time I was really angry at Questlove because he was rocking it DJing the party. I ended up staying until 12:15, and that’s not me. I ended up dancing and having a blast. I jumped onstage with Diane Neal. We were humping each other. It was so stupid. People kept saying, “Are you drunk?” And I said, “No, I’m having fun.” Yeah. It was a fun night.
I drove myself home. I’m cheap! I didn’t want to pay for a cab. A taxi all the way to Brooklyn is something like $30. You pay $30 to get there. That’s $60. Or if I got my car service that I love, it would have been $60 into Manhattan, $60 home plus waiting time. So it would probably cost you $150. My husband hates this about me. He says, “Rosie, you have money. Just pay the $150.” But I reply, “Yes, but if I drive myself in and I go to the parking lot four blocks down, and I pay $40 tops until the end of the day.” But you have to park away from the theater district. The lot is all the way down 42nd Street. It’s just a by-product of not having money. I think “Okay, I have money now. So I want to keep it and have it last as long as possible.”
No matter how tired I am, I always take off my makeup, pin up my hair or put it up in a ponytail on top of my head before bed. Hair and skin is so important to me. I wash my hands, because you can’t go to bed with dirty hands. I take 10 minutes to brush my teeth. It’s pathetic how long I take. I don’t use an electric toothbrush because I’m cheap. While I watched the fights I did my ritual of applying lotion everywhere.
When the fights finished, I played Spider right before bed. If I focus on one thing before I go to bed, like Spider Solitaire, it empties out my head. It’s a form of meditation. Then I cuddled with my husband and went to sleep. It was a great day in New York.